Mysteries of the 21st Century in a Helter-Skelter World
It’s possible I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong planet -- and if that sounds like the first sentence of a sci-fi novel maybe, in its own way, it is. I thought I knew where I was, of course, but looking back from our helter-skelter world of 2014, I wonder.
For most of the last several hundred years, the story in view might be called the Great Concentration and it focused on an imperial struggle for power on planet Earth. That rivalry took place among a kaleidoscopic succession of European “great powers,” one global empire (Great Britain), Russia, a single Asian state (Japan), and the United States. After two world wars that devastated the Eurasian continent, there emerged only two “superpowers,” the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They were so stunningly mighty and over-armed -- great inland empires -- that, unlike previous powers, they could not even imagine how to wage war directly upon each other, not without obliterating much of civilization. The full planet nonetheless became their battlefield in what was known as the Cold War only because hot ones were banished to “the peripheries” and the conflict took place, in part, in “the shadows” (a situation novelist John Le Carré caught with particular incisiveness).
Those two superpowers divided much of the planet into mighty blocs, as the “free world” faced off against the “communist” one. What was left, often called the Third World, became a game board and sometimes battlefield for influence and dominance. From Havana to Saigon, Berlin to Jakarta, whatever happened, however local, always seemed to have a superpower tinge to it.
This was the world as it was presented to me in the years of my youth and for decades thereafter. And then, unexpectedly, there was only one superpower. In 1991, something like the ultimate step in the concentration of power seemed to occur. The weaker and less wealthy of the two rivals, its economy grown sclerotic even as its nuclear arsenal bulged, its vaunted military bogged down in an unwinnable war with Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan (backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan), suddenly vanished from the planet. It left behind a dismantled wall in Berlin, a unified Germany, a liberated Eastern Europe, a series of former SSRs in Central Asia fending for themselves, and its bloc partner (and sometimes-rival-cum-enemy) China, still run by a “communist” party, gunning the automobile of state onto the capitalist highway under slogans like “to get rich is glorious.”
Full Spectrum Dominance on a Unipolar Planet
As with the famous cheese of children’s rhyme, the United States now stood alone. Never before had a single power of such stature, wealth, and military clout been left so triumphantly solitary, without the hint of a serious challenger anywhere. Economically, the only other system imaginable for a century had been banished to the history books. There was just one power and one economic system left in a moment of triumph the likes of which even the leaders of that winning state had neither imagined nor predicted.
Initially, Washington was stunned. It took the powers-that-be almost a decade to fully absorb and react to what had happened. After all, as one observer then so famously put it, “the end of history” had been reached -- and there, amid the rubble of other systems and powers, lay an imperial version of liberal democracy and a capitalist system freed of even the thought of global competitors and constraints. Or so it seemed.
For almost a decade, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were, no bones about it, in the era of “the Washington consensus” and “globalization.” The Earth was flat and we were all One, swimming in a sea of giant swooshes, golden arches, action movies, and Disney princesses. What a moment to dream -- and though it took a decade, you’ll remember the dreamers well. Having prepared the way as a kind of shadow government, in 2000 they took over the White House (with a helping hand from the Supreme Court). After a single devastating terrorist attack (the “Pearl Harbor” of the twenty-first century), they were soon dreaming on a global scale as befit their new vision of power. They imagined a “wartime” that would last for generations -- some of them even called it World War IV -- during which they would establish a full-scale military protectorate, including monster bases, in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and a Pax Americana globally aimed at preventing any other great nation or bloc of nations from arising to challenge the United States -- ever.
And that should have surprised no one. It seemed like such an obvious concluding passage to the Great Concentration. What else was there to dream about when “The End” had come up onscreen and the logic of history was theirs to do with what they would? After all, they had at their beck and call a military the likes of which no other 10 nations could match and a national security state, including surveillance and intelligence outfits, whose post-9/11 reach was to be unparalleled among countries or in history. They sat atop a vast and wealthy state then regularly referred to as the planet’s “sole superpower” or even its “hyperpower,” and no less regularly called its “sheriff.”
Where great powers had once been, only a few rickety “rogue states” remained: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. And with the help of a clever speechwriter, George W. Bush was soon to pump those three countries up into a convenient “Axis of Evil,” a phrase meant to combine the fearsomeness of World War II’s Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and Ronald Reagan’s famous Star Wars-style moniker for the Soviet Union, “the Evil Empire.” No matter that two of the three powers in question had been at each other’s throats for a decade and the third, a half-nation with a population regularly on a starvation diet, was quite unrelated.
Beyond that, when it came to enemies, there were relatively small numbers of jihadi bands, mostly scattered in the tribal backlands of the planet, and a few poorly armed minority insurgencies. A “unipolar” planet? You bet, hands down (or rather, as the Bush administration then saw it, hands up in the classic gesture of surrender that it quickly expected from Iraq, Iran, and Syria, among other places). The future, according to the prevailing script, couldn’t have been more obvious. Could there be any question that dominance, or even as the U.S. military liked to put it, “full-spectrum dominance,” was the obvious, uncontested, and only possible result?
A Jihadist Paradise on Earth
As the present chaos across large swathes of our world indicates, however, it didn’t turn out to be so. The planet was telling quite a different story, one focused not on the concentration of power but on a radical form of power drain. In that story, the one for which the evidence kept piling up regularly in the post-9/11 years, no application of power seemed to work for Washington. No enemy, no matter how minor, weak, ill armed, or unpopular could be defeated. No jihadist group wiped out. Not one.
Jump 13 years and they are all still there: the original al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), and a whole befuddling new range of jihadist groups, most of them bigger than ever, with one now proclaiming a “caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East; in Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurgent (and a growing new Taliban movement is destabilizing Pakistan); the Shia militias the U.S. couldn’t take down in Iraq during its occupation of the country are now fighting the followers of the Sunni military men whose army Washington demobilized in 2003. The fundamentalists in Iran, despite endless years of threat and pressure, are still in power, their regional influence enhanced. Libya, which should have been a nation-building miracle, has instead become an extremist battleground, while (like Syria) losing a significant percentage of its population; Africa is increasingly destabilized, and Nigeria in particular faces one of the more bizarre insurgencies in modern history; and so on.
Nowhere is there a hint of Washington’s Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East, no less globally. In fact, across a vast and growing swath of the planet, stretching from South Asia to Africa, from Iraq to Ukraine, the main force at work seems not to be the concentration of power, but its fragmentation, its disintegration, before which Washington has proven remarkably helpless.
Thirteen years later, on the eve of another 9/11 anniversary, the president found himself, however reluctantly, on television addressing the American people on the launching of another hapless Iraq war, the third since 1991 -- and the first in which those announcing it visibly no longer had any expectation of victory or could even imagine what the endpoint of all this might be. In fact, before Barack Obama appeared on our home screens, word was already leaking out from official precincts in Washington that this new war would last not a decisive few weeks or even months, but years. At least “36 months” was the figure being bandied about.
In other words, as he launched Iraq 3.0, the president was already essentially conceding a kind of defeat by willing it to his successor in the Oval Office. Not getting out of Iraq, as he had promised in his 2008 presidential campaign, but getting in yet again would now be his “legacy.” If that doesn’t tell you what you need to know about the deep-sixing of the dream of global domination, what does?
Nor was the new enemy some ghostly jihadist group with small numbers of followers scattered in the backlands of the planet. It was something new under the sun: a mini-state-building, war-fighting, revenue-generating, atrocity-producing machine (and yet anything but the former “Evil Empire”). Against it, the drones and bombers had already been called in and Washington was now to lead -- the phrase, almost a quarter-century old, was making a reappearance in the general babble of reporting about, and punditry on, the new conflict -- a “coalition of the willing.” In the first such coalition, in 1991, 35 nations were gathered under the American wing to crush Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (which, of course, didn’t quite happen). And the Saudis, the Japanese, and the Germans agreeably anted up $52 billion of the cost of that $61 billion conflict, making it a near freebie of a (briefly) triumphant war for Washington.
This time, however, as befit the moment, the new “coalition” was to consist of a crew so recalcitrant, unwilling, and ill-matched as to practically spell out disaster-in-the-making. Inside Iraq, a unification government was already being formed and it looked remarkably like previous not-so-unification-minded governments. The Kurds were playing it cagy on the question of support; Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric whose militias had once fought the Americans and were now fighting the forces of the new Islamic State (IS), was warning against cooperation of any sort with the former “occupier”; and as for the Sunnis, well, don’t hold your breath.
And don’t even start in on the Turks, the Egyptians, and others in the region. In the meantime, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Iraq and promised that the U.S. would ante up $48 million to stand up a new Iraqi “national guard.” It was assumedly meant as a home for disaffected Sunni fighters to bolster the American-financed, -armed, and -trained Iraqi army that had collapsed in a heap when the warriors of the Islamic State descended on them led by former officers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army. And oh yes, with the help of the Saudis (who had previously funneled money to far more extreme groups of rebels in Syria), the U.S. was now planning to arm and train the barely existent “moderate” rebels of that country. If that isn’t a description of a coalition of the shaky, what is?
Is American Leadership “the One Constant in an Uncertain World”?
From that “new” Iraqi military force to the usual set of op-eds, comments, and critiques calling for yet more military action by the usual crowd of neocons and Republicans in Washington, it’s felt distinctly like déjà vu all over again. This time, however, it seems as if we’re watching familiar events through some funhouse mirror, everything half-recognizable, yet creepy as hell. Ever more of the world seems this way, as for instance in the “new Cold War” that’s played out in recent months in Ukraine.
And yet it’s worth noting that some things are missing from that mirror's distorted view. When was the last time, for instance, that you heard the phrase “sole superpower” or the word “unipolar”? Not for years, I suspect. Yet the talk of “multi-polarity” has, like the Brazilian economy, faded, too, and for good reason.
On the face of it, the United States remains the unipolar power on planet Earth, or as the president put it in his TV address, speaking of American leadership, “the one constant in an uncertain world.” Its military remains uncontested in any normal sense, with something approaching that long-desired goal of full-spectrum dominance. No other concentration of power on the planet comes close to matching it. In fact, even for the European Union, once imagined as a future power bloc of immense possibility, fragmentation of various sorts now seem to hover in the air.
Admittedly, two regional powers have begun flexing their military muscles along their borders (and sea lanes). Vladimir Putin, the autocratic ruler of what is essentially a hollowed out energy state, has been meddling in Ukraine, as he did previously with Georgia, in situations where he’s felt the pressure of the U.S. and NATO pushing against his country’s former borderlands. In the process, he has effectively brought power drain and fragmentation to the heartlands of Eurasia in a way that may prove far less amenable to his control than he now imagines.
Meanwhile, in the South China Sea and nearby waters, China, the world’s rising economic juggernaut and increasingly a regional military power, has been pushing its neighbors’ buttons as it grabs for undersea energy rights and generally tries to reverse a long history of what it considers “humiliation,” while taking its place as a regional hegemon. As in Ukraine with NATO, so here, in its announced “pivot” to Asia, the U.S. has played its own part in this process. Once again, division and fragmentation of various sorts shimmer on the horizon. And yet these challenges to America’s status as the globe’s hegemon remain local and limited in nature. The likelihood that either of them will develop into some version of the great power struggles of the nineteenth century or of the Cold War era seems remote.
Still, the conundrum for Washington remains. For the last 13 years, it’s had access to unparalleled powers of every kind, concentrated in all sorts of ways, and yet in what has to be considered a mystery of the twenty-first century, everywhere, even at home, fragmentation and gridlock, not decisive, effective action are evident, while the draining (or paralysis) of power seems to be the order of the day.
Nowhere, at home or abroad, does the obvious might of the United States translate into expected results, or much of anything else except a kind of roiling chaos. On much of the planet, Latin America (but not Central America) excepted, power vacuums, power breakdowns, power drains, and fragmentation are increasingly part of everyday life. And one thing is remarkably clear: each and every application of American military power globally since 9/11 has furthered the fragmentation process, destabilizing whole regions.
In the twenty-first century, the U.S. military has been neither a nation- nor an army-builder, nor has it found victory, no matter how hard it’s searched. It has instead been the equivalent of the whirlwind in international affairs, and so, however the most recent Iraq war works out, one thing seems predictable: the region will be further destabilized and in worse shape when it’s over.
The Greatest Concentration of Literal Power in History
Since World War II, we’ve generally been focused on the Great Concentration, while another story was developing in the shadows. Its focus: the de-concentration of power in what the Bush administration used to call the Greater Middle East, as well as in Africa, and even Europe. Just how exactly this developed will have to await a better historian than I and perhaps the passage of time. But for the sake of discussion, let’s call it the Great Fragmentation.
Perhaps it started in the twentieth century with the decolonization movements that swept across so much of the globe and took down a series of already weakening European empires. One of its latest manifestations might have been the Arab Spring and the chaos and disintegration that seemed to follow from it. The undermining or neutralizing of imperial power and the systems of alliance and dependency it builds seems at its heart. With it has gone the inability of militaries anywhere to achieve the sorts of victories against even the least impressive of enemies that were once the meat and potatoes of imperial power.
The Great Fragmentation has accelerated in seemingly disastrous ways in our own time under perhaps some further disintegrative pressure. One possibility: yet another development in the shadows that, in some bizarre fashion, combines both the concentration of power and its fragmentation in devastating ways. I’m thinking here of the story of how the apocalypse became human property -- the discovery, that is, of how to fully exploit two energy sources, the splitting of the atom and the extraction of fossil fuels for burning from ever more difficult places, that could leave human life on this planet in ruins.
Think of them as, quite literally, the two greatest concentrations of power in history. One is now embedded in the globe’s nuclear arsenals, capable of destroying numerous Earth-sized planets. The other is to be found in a vast array of oil and natural gas wells and coal mines, as well as in a relatively small number of Big Energy companies and energy states like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and increasingly these days, the United States. It, we now know, is capable of essentially burning civilization off the planet.
From this dual concentration of power comes the potential for the kinds of apocalyptic fragmentation it was once thought only the gods or God might be capable of. We’re talking about potential exit ramps from history. The pressure of this story -- which has been in play in our world since at least August 6, 1945, and now in its dual forms suffuses all our lives in hard to define ways -- on the other two and on the increasing fragmentation of human affairs, while impossible to calibrate, is undoubtedly all too real.
This is why, now in my eighth decade, I can’t help but wonder just what planet I’m really on and what its story will really turn out to be.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, to be published in October, is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World (Haymarket Books).
[Note: Special thanks go to my friend Jonathan Cobb for talking me through this one.]